The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Shofar FTP Archive File: camps/auschwitz/pressac

Archive/File: camps/auschwitz pressac
Last-Modified: 1993/10/07

Munich, October 6 (NCA/Joel Blocker) - Jean-Claude Pressac is
known as a reliable, unassuming pharmacist in the village of
La-Ville-du-Bois, a part of Paris' large southern suburban belt.
A burly man of 49 years, Pressac at first glance seems only to be
distinguished by his crew-cropped hair and oddly stiff military
manner. But the pharmacist is actually quite different from his
village neighbors: After the extensive coverage he has received
in the French and foreign press during the past fortnight,
Pressac has now been revealed as a respected, if amateur,
historian of the Holocaust -- the systematic extermination by the
Nazis of six million European Jews during World War

The unusual story of how Pressac became an expert on the Nazi
wartime slaughter of European Jewry is, in its own way, a model
of democratic experience. It bespeaks one man's determination to
corroborate the Holocaust as a historical event in the face of a
growing movement of so-called Revisionist and Negationist
historians and their popular followers. These Revisionists,
discredited and condemned by all respected authorities in the
field, either deny the event ever occurred or claim it
was on a far smaller scale than previously depicted by
historians. Pressac himself was for several  years a Revisionist
follower who denied the full dimensions of the Holocaust.

Pressac has never had any professional training as a historian.
His parents were elementary school teachers with ties to the
French extreme right, disciplinarians who sent him to eight years
of tough military boarding school. When he emerged, Pressac told
the weekly Nouvel Observateur last week, he was "a real little
Fascist" obsessed with all things military, particularly Adolph
Hitler's Germany. He tried to gain entry to Saint-Cyr, France's
most prestigious officer-training school, but failed the exam.
That forced him into civilian life, where he first studied
chemical engineering, only to abandon that and finally enter and
complete pharmacy school.

Pressac's scientific background, particularly in chemistry, stood
him in good stead for pursuing the obsession of his entire adult
life, the obscure and arcane machinery of the Holocaust. He says
the obsession began when he was 18 years old and read French
writer Robert Merle's novel, "Death is My Profession," based on
the life of Rudolph Hoess, the last and most murderous Nazi
Commandent at Auschwitz. Later, he read Hoess' own memoirs and,
when he was 22, made his first trip to Auschwitz and other Nazi
death camps in Poland. "I didn't see very much," he says now. "I
understood nothing."

Pressac returned to Auschwitz in 1979 with a vague idea of
writing a historical novel about what would have happened if Nazi
Germany had won the war. It was his second visit, including a
meeting with Tadeusz Ivaszko, a Pole who is head of the existing
archives section at his government's museum at Auschwitz, that
triggered doubts in Pressac about the Holocaust. "You talk like
Faurisson," Ivaszko told Pressac. "Who's Faurisson?" asked
Pressac. "A Frenchman, like you, who doesn't want to believe" in
the Holocaust, replied Ivaszko.

Back in France, Pressac fell under the spell of Robert Faurisson,
a Lyons university instructor who had founded the French
Revisionist school and today, although dismissed from his
university post for his beliefs, is still its most well-known
advocate. Pressac remained friendly with Faurisson and other
Revisionists for years, and today justifies his long affiliation
with them by saying: "Remember, I'm not Jewish. I didn't know
very many Jews. I had no contact with them, I was never close to
their suffering.... But if I hadn't had doubts about the
Holocaust," he adds, "I never would have undertaken my research
and I never would have discovered anything."

Eventually, his researches led him to renounce his own original
doubts about the Holocaust's dimensions and to break with
Faurisson. With the help of professional historians, including
Nazi expert Serge Klarsfeld, Pressac began to grapple with the
same grim questions that preoccupied the
professionals: How did the Nazis manage to kill and burn more
than 4,300 inmates a day in Auschwitz at the height of their
wartime industrial murder process? Where was the proof of the
existence of a physical plant that could kill that number daily
and dispose of their bodies?

It was questions like those that gave the openings to Revisionist
reasoning. Faurisson had himself laid down the Revisionist
gauntlet with his notorious challenge: "Holocaust? Prove it
occurred!" That wasn't easy for several reasons.

For one thing, the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" had
been systematically concealed by Hitler and his SS chief,
Heinrich Himmler, in euphemisms like "deportation to the east."
Their orders to those who carried out the mass extermination were
always highly discreet -- either oral or, if written, accompanied
by injunctions for their immediate destruction. And most of those
that weren't immediately burned, historians suspect, were
destroyed in the last days of the Nazi regime. For another,
crematoria and other physical evidence in the death camps
themselves, along with most of the camps' political and technical
files, were also largely destroyed by retreating SS troops
in late 1944 and early 1945.

After a more than a decade of patient research, Pressac was
finally able to come up with fresh documentary evidence of the
crematoria installation in Auschwitz, almost entirely destroyed
by the SS in January, 1945. His breakthrough, and with it
international fame, came two weeks ago with the publication in
France of his fifth, and most important, work on the Holocaust:
"The Crematoria of Auschwitz: The Machinery of Mass Murder" (CNRS
Editions, Paris).

The book is largely based on new information garnered from files
taken by the Soviet Army from the Auschwitz concentration camp in
early 1945. The files belonged to the Bauleitung SS, the
organization in charge of death-camp construction for the Nazis.
They had inadvertently n-o-t been burned along with Auschwitz's
other incriminating files when the SS departed in haste. With the
help of Serge Klarsfeld and the intervention of Roland Dumas,
then French Foreign Minister, these files were made available to
Pressac in Moscow three years ago by the KGB, which had kept them
secret for 45 years.

Citing the files repeatedly, Pressac's tightly argued 96 pages
--plus supporting photos, charts and notes -- coolly recount, in
mind-boggling technical detail, how the SS built and operated a
murder machine in Auschwitz --and, by inference, in other
extermination camps. They document, among other things, the warm
and profitable cooperation of wartime German civilian
construction firms, most flagrantly J.A. Topf and Sons of Erfurt,
which built the Auschwitz human ovens. The files, and the book's
arguments, are not easily refutable.

For professionmal historians sympathetic to Pressac, "The
Crematoria of Auschwitz" ends the dispute about how the death
camps were able to kill and burn millions of people. "The
question is now resolved," says Denis Peschanski, a historian
with France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS in
the French acronym), which published Pressac's book. Beate
Klarsfeld -- Serge Klarsfeld's wife -- whose New York-based
foundation published Pressac's earlier major Holocaust work
("Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers," 1989),
says "he knows more about gas chambers and ovens than anyone
else. His work," she believes, "stands as the most complete
reference book on the question."

But Beate Klarsfeld says -- as does Pressac himself -- that "the
book won't silence the Revisionists because they enjoy their
notoriety too much and because they don't want to be convinced."
Claude Lanzmann, the French intellectual who created "Shoah," a
monumental nine-hour documentary and art film on the Holocaust in
1986, is even more skeptical about the effect of Pressac's study
on Revisionists.

"The only Revisionist that Pressac will convince of the
authenticity of the Holocaust is Pressac himself," says Lanzmann,
who believes that the human testimony of Nazi mass murder he and
others have compiled carries far more conviction than technical
plant data. Pressac, Lanzmann adds, has made the serious, perhaps
fatal mistake of arguing the authenticity of the Holocaust "on
Faurisson's grounds."

Perhaps the most balanced judgement of Pressac's work has
recently been expressed by Raul Hilberg, the U.S.'s -- and
probably the world's -- pre-eminent historian of the Holocaust.
Hilberg is the author of the encyclopedic three-volume
"Destruction of European Jewry," generally considered the classic
work in the field.

Hilberg both praises Pressac's work and suggests its limitations.
He says, first, that Pressac "had the merit to study a subject
whose importance had not been fully appreciated. The history of
the construction of Auschwitz raises crucial questions for
understanding the development of the process of the Final
Solution.... Pressac was the first to examine the subject closely
and to draw conclusions."

But, Hilberg adds, Pressac's work is "only a beginning." Pressac
is "not really an historian ... and some of his interpretations
could turn out to be erroneous," he believes. For instance,
Hilberg challenges Pressac's estimate of 630,000 Jews having been
killed in Auschwitz's gas chambers. His conclusion is that
Pressac's figure underestimates the real number of Jews murdered
in the camp, which Hilberg places at close to one million. And
for Hilberg, the difference in estimates is not merely
quantitative, but suggests a qualitatively different view of the
horrors of Auschwitz. In any case, the American historian
concludes, "there is still plenty of work for the historians of
the Final Solution to do."

As for Pressac, whose new-won fame has not changed his will to
continue his work, he clearly still has a lot to learn -- not
least about the Jews to whom he has devoted his life-work. Claude
Weill, a journalist with the Nouvel Observateur, France's most
influential magazine, accompanied Pressac on a trip to Auschwitz
last month. He reported that the pharmacist is still "almost
incredibly ignorant" about Jews and Judaism.

"What is that white fabric that certain Jews put on their heads
while praying?," Pressac asked Weill at one point in the trip. It
turned out he had never understood the function and importance of
the "talit," the common Jewish prayer shawl, hundreds of
thousands of which had been confiscated by the Nazis at Auschwitz
before mass executions. Pressac also revealed to the same
reporter that even today he had not the slightest idea of the
difference between Ashkenazi (most European) Jews and Sephardic
(Spanish and Mediterranean) Jews.

How does he stand politically today, the same reporter asked
Pressac?  "I'm of the Right," he answered. "By upbringing and
education, I'm a maniac for order." But in a French election
today, Pressac continued, he wouldn't vote for Jean-Marie Le
Pen's extreme Right National Front, whose propaganda often has
anti-Semitic and Revisionist overtones. "After what I said about
the gas chambers, I'm not well liked in those circles," he says.

So whom would he vote for today?  Well, Pressac said, "a few
years ago I would have voted for (Charles) Pasqua," the current
conservative French Interior Minister known for his hard-line on
controlling illegal immigration and the entry of foreigners in
general. "But after I met people like (Serge) Klarsfeld, I
changed somewhat. These laws restricting foreigners, we know now
where they can lead..."

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